Well, damn, this book is smart. I'm not talking about the ending (I don't actually think all the mechanics work out perfectly) so much as Flannery her...moreWell, damn, this book is smart. I'm not talking about the ending (I don't actually think all the mechanics work out perfectly) so much as Flannery herself, in all her glorious unreliable narrator-ness. The book is her diary, which she's editing for publication from prison - the treatment of time is beautifully messy and fun. You've got (1) traditional diary-style storytelling, (2) annotations at the original time of writing (i.e. Flannery giving her friend her journal instead of telling her a story and then stopping and saying, wait, I'm only writing this now, that won't work), (3) annotations during the editing process, (4) entire anecdotes added in and acknowledged as dramatized (i.e. a scene in which her friend gives her a ride and they argue briefly about their group's new nickname - The Basic Eight - and then Flannery gets out of the car and tells you that she walked to school that day, but she knows a conversation like that happened at some point, and this seemed like as good a place as any to include it), (5) conversations repeated word-for-word, between different characters (actually my favorite part of the book - Flan talks to Adam, and then repeats the conversation with Gabriel, this time taking Adam's role - it's identical, down to the descriptions of expressions and such), (6) open acknowledgement of all of it! She wants you to know she's unreliable! She wants you to see the seams where things were pieced together, and not care, because it's her story, damn it! And it's SO GOOD. (less)
This is not a book someone should be reading if they are interested in a general overview of the Russian Revolution. I shouldn't even have to say that...moreThis is not a book someone should be reading if they are interested in a general overview of the Russian Revolution. I shouldn't even have to say that, since it's incredibly upfront about its focus (I mean, look at the title?) but some other reviews seem to suggest otherwise. This is a book about a family and an illness and a way of life, and outside influences are delved into only when necessary - if you don't know anything about Bolshevism, this won't teach you.
Which is fine! Because it's a meticulously-researched, wonderfully-written book, and it probably did a lot to humanize the Romanovs when it was published. In 1967. The tone is kind of comically wistful at times, because, of course, Massie was writing about an empire that had been turned into the terrifying gray monolith known as the USSR. Something was lost forever. I mean, this was pre-Prague Spring, even - nobody had any idea that the USSR was ever going to crumble. So the tone of nostalgia here is pretty heavy, and Massie comes across as a staunch monarchist. At one point he mentions that the first attempt on Rasputin's life happened right around when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and encourages the reader to speculate about how the 20th century would have preceded if the outcomes had been reversed. You can practically hear him crying over the thought of the Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties proudly carrying on. And his ultimate conclusion is that, if it had not been for hemophilia, for Rasputin, for WWI, Russia probably would have gone the way of England - Nicholas, he says, would have made a wonderful constitutional monarch. I'm probably coming across as pretty snide. I actually thought this was a great book - it is a product of its time, and its a time I'll never fully understand, because the Berlin Wall came down when I was too young to know what was going on.
Basically, this book makes the Romanovs human - the crazed Empress is just a terrified mother, trusting the only person she thinks can help her son with a horrifying disease. The malicious (or useless, depending on the source) Tsar is a loving father and husband, unprepared for the enormity of his task. The Grand Duchesses are separate people, not interchangeable little girls (Tatiana and Anastasia are, I think, given more attention than Olga and Maria, but you take what you can get), and Alexis, who is often reduced to the-one-with-hemophilia, is given a personality beyond his disease. And these are all important things. Just because the Romanovs weren't the only players in this part of history doesn't mean they weren't important ones - and their story is often boiled down the barest facts, which inevitably misrepresents a story that requires nuance (if, for instance, you don't know how scary hemophilia is when untreated, and you don't know that Alexandra was shy, and you don't know the details of Rasputin's behavior around her vs. around everyone else, etc. etc. then yeah, you probably will dismiss her as crazy and unfairly blame a lot of what happened on her). But its biases are clear, and shouldn't be ignored.(less)
This book took me an absurdly long time to read, but man, was it worth it. Hilary Mantel's brain is some sort of freakish treasure - every time I read...moreThis book took me an absurdly long time to read, but man, was it worth it. Hilary Mantel's brain is some sort of freakish treasure - every time I read her, I am simultaneously elated by the beautiful things she creates and depressed that I will never be able to write the way she does. She breaks so many rules (constantly changing POV not just between characters, but from first person to an anonymous third, to her own voice, to a script format, back to traditional dialogue, &c.), but it all works.
This book is billed as being about Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins, but let's be real - this is Camille Desmoulins' book. And that makes sense. Camille's easy to love because his opinions seemed to run pretty parallel to our own: he was present for and instrumental in all the heady early excitement, inciting the rioting that led to the storming of the Bastille, for instance, but when things got out of hand, he was quick to condemn the Reign of Terror (and he and his beautiful young wife seem to have really loved each other, so don't discount the power of a love story). It's no surprise, really, that he was a favorite of the Victorians, who saw him as a noble martyr for goodness or something. I don't care about that Camille.
And thank god Mantel didn't fall for all of that. Camille's her most sympathetic character, yes, but he's also a little shit. She doesn't ignore the fact that he's the Lanterne Attorney, that he delighted in violence - you get the feeling that the Vieux Cordelier came about partly out of genuine moral distress, and partly out of petulance, as if institutionalized terror repelled him because he preferred the good old chaotic kind, the kind that had made him the revolutionary darling of the people only a few years earlier. He's a dramatic, reactionary little jerk, and his ideals are very dear to him - until those ideals are turned against a friend, aristocratic or otherwise. He's a mess, and he's rather wonderful.
Not to imply that the book is 100% perfect. I read somewhere that Mantel claimed she began writing this book as a Dantonist and came out of it a Robespierrist, but I don't see that reflected in the text. Robespierre himself is amazing (a little bit of personal bias may be coming through here, but I think you'd agree - he's as exacting as you might expect, but entirely human in a way you don't always get to see), but all of her Robespierrist characters are oddly-portrayed. If she's such a Robespierrist, why the uniformly negative depiction of the Duplay family, even when Robespierre himself is narrating(even poor Éléonore, whose portraits do not support the constant barrage of comments about her plainness)? Why Robespierre's personal distaste for Saint-Just, a man who would remain his closest ally until they died on the same day? Even the structure of the plot is Dantonist - Robespierrists don't generally imply that the fall of the factions was the de facto end of the Revolution, because what does that say about Robespierre's own abilities? A book about Camille Desmoulins is going to be inherently Dantonist, but there were still some choices I didn't really understand.
As for Danton himself? He's tough to love, but fun to read. A bit of a brute, hugely egotistical (granted, with good reason) and generally self-interested. Like the rest of the book, he's very well-drawn, but he never inspired much in the way of feelings.
Oh, I don't know. Mantel is a genius, and her books are art. She balances the personal and political so well - I don't want to imagine it in less-skilled hands. The reader would race through the political discussions to get to the next scene with Camille and Lucile (or, well, Camille and Danton or Robespierre or anyone; her Camille is definitely a flirt). But Mantel's mind-blowing, and I was never bored for an instant. My grasp of the French Revolution isn't as strong as my grasp of Tudor history, so I was a little worried that I wouldn't love this as much as I loved Wolf Hall, but I think I may love it even more. I am awed.(less)
This is my favorite book, full stop. I can't remember when I first read it - late high school or early college, I know. I won't say that it created my...moreThis is my favorite book, full stop. I can't remember when I first read it - late high school or early college, I know. I won't say that it created my preference for this sort of aesthetic, but it certainly crystallized it. Moral decay, a tight-knit group drawing even further inward, affection and sympathy for characters doing Bad Things, incest! It's filled with so many of the things that I love in fiction, and everything is topped off with a healthy dose of atmosphere (or maybe an unhealthy dose, maybe an overdose, maybe I'm an addict?). Tartt's Hampden is slow and thick with ambience; it feels like another world, and I suppose it is, because you're seeing it through Richard's eyes - it's the opposite of his hot, flat California home, it's never seen a tract house or a massive shopping mall. It's old and rich and highbrow, and it's oppressive and liberating all at once. I find the plot delightful, but honestly, it's secondary to the characters and setting (and the pacing is, frankly, bizarre). I can see how that might turn some people off, but characters and setting are always my favorite things, so I am, obviously, going to be trapped in a lifelong obsession with this damn book.
Look. This book means things to me. I see a lot of myself in Richard "A Morbid Longing for the Picturesque At All Costs" Papen - I'm not saying it's a good thing; he's foolish and lies to himself and is thoroughly unreliable (he has a moment of self-realization toward the end of the book that is beautiful to me because it's all things that were so, so, so obvious to the reader already) and so easily swayed by flattery and inclusion. He's not a great guy, but he feels very real to me. Francis feels very real to me, Charles feels very real to me. Even Henry, who is like no one I have ever met (and no one I ever hope to meet) feels real to me. Do they have weird quirks? Yeah, of course they do. But they're fully drawn, they have personalities and histories - and real people have quirks too. A character being strange and unfamiliar to you doesn't mean they're unrealistic or not worth your time. I mean, these guys are the worst, yeah. They're insufferable snobs, they're the kind of people who sniff at you and tell you they don't watch television, they don't even oooown a television, ugh. They talk to each other in Greek! They're permanently soused, drunk as fish, louche lazy and befuddled by your silly middle class troubles. And I love them all. Sue me.
I think Bennington College stayed on my radar for years after reading this, even after I went to a massive state school on the other end of the country - where, incidentally, I majored in Classics (I am a parody of myself, to be honest).(less)